Tackling homelessness is a tall order. Numerous bureaucratic and philanthropic organisations have dedicated their energies to ending it. Yet Providence Row is different from the rest: it doesn’t simply salve the immediate problems, but works to keep people off the streets.
That’s an almighty challenge, but one that the charity’s new head, Tom O’Connor, is embracing with gusto. O’Connor, a Catholic who joined the organisation from Cafod last year, is remarkably unfazed by the task that lies ahead. He is chipper, straight-talking and bubbling with a refreshing energy. It is difficult not to feel moved by his enthusiasm.
He tells me, earnestly and without a trace of hesitation, that “everybody’s welcome” at Providence Row’s base in east London. That may seem remarkable, considering the complicated issues of addiction and mental health that often come hand-in-hand with homelessness.
“We will work with anyone regardless of their background and their current status,” says O’Connor. “From the first day, Providence Row has made it clear that we will welcome anyone from any community.
“We deliberately don’t put a time frame on clients’ time here. Some come through quite quickly and others are here for a long time.”
Providence Row welcomes those in the grip of addiction and allows them to enrol on training schemes. “Most charities prefer clients to have been clean for over a year,” O’Connor explains. “Here we don’t require trainees to have gone through recovery, which is really important because often people need the most help at that early stage.”
Unlike many similar institutions, Providence Row is not results-driven, which allows clients to progress slowly and surely.
The charity works with approximately 1,400 clients every year. It is kept going by 40 members of staff and 200 volunteers. An average day will see 50 or 60 clients walk through its doors, most of them living without shelter and many of them addicts.
How can one organisation in one corner of one London borough effectively tackle homelessness? By putting Christian teaching into action. Providence Row was founded in 1860 as a Catholic charity by a local parish priest, Fr Daniel Gilbert, who enlisted the help of the Sisters of Mercy to provide a place of refuge for London’s most destitute citizens. The charity’s main function was originally as a soup kitchen, but today it does so much more. The Church and the Christian message remain central.
Feeding the hungry is still the main event: the kitchen serves breakfast and lunch to clients, but the charity’s training schemes allow the clients themselves to cook the meals.
Providence Row offers catering, baking and gardening courses to all its clients, alongside classes such as reading and writing, physical health, arts, crafts and mindfulness, and both group and individual therapy. They are also invited to use the on-site showers should they wish.
Training schemes are the most powerful force for change. As with the refuge itself, nobody is turned away. Instead, anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol is asked to “come back tomorrow”. This ensures that the charity’s values of respect and compassion are upheld.
Dom Gates is in his eighth year as the enterprise and training manager at Providence Row. “Our schemes are about slowly building clients up in a really personal way,” he says, “and attending to their support needs which we tackle using training.”
The charity has found that clients enrolled on the schemes tend to reduce substance abuse as they enjoy the commitment and sense of responsibility. “Everyone we work with has previous skills and experience before joining us,” Gates says. “Some of our trainees have gone on to do some remarkable things, like become successful artists.” The success stories are inspiriting.
As I’m leaving, I meet someone who has seen more happy outcomes than most: Sister Enda, who has volunteered for Providence Row on and off for 63 years.
I speak to her in the middle of her day’s work on the reception desk. She is quietly spoken, soft in appearance and radiates gentleness. As she describes her six decades at Providence Row, it is impossible not to be inspired by her dedication and unfaltering commitment to putting God’s word into action. When she speaks, there is a powerful purity and lack of judgment.
“When I started it was very basic but it was very homely,” she says. “We didn’t have all the facilities they have nowadays but we enjoyed it. There were a lot of Sisters, and we were young and full of energy. For me, though, it’s about helping people, not just feeding them.”
I ask if she can sum up Providence Row’s distinctive ethos. “We respect everybody,” she replies. “We care for every-body. It seems to work. And we listen to people. And most importantly, we do not condemn.”
Constance Watson is a freelance journalist. To help Providence Row, visit providencerow.org.uk, email [email protected] or phone 020 7375 0020